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Sri Lanka: Democracy and Terror

Sri Lanka: Democracy and Terror
Sri Lanka: Democracy and Terror

The
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was a secular, nationalist
terrorist organization active in Sri Lanka from 1976 until May 2009. The
LTTE demanded the establishment of an independent Tamil country in the
north and north-east of Sri Lanka, following the systematic
discrimination perpetrated by the Sinhalese majority (Buddhist), against
the Tamil minority (Hindu).

Initially,
the LTTE acted on a small scale. As the level of violence increased,
they formed a military-like command structure, and, at their peak,
controlled 5800 square miles and consisted of approximately 30-35,000
members. The LTTE is the only terrorist organization to have
successfully assassinated two world leaders (India’s Prime Minister
Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the President of Sri Lanka Ranasinghe Premadasa
in 1993). Furthermore, the LTTE killed numerous politicians, military
officials, academics and intellectuals.
At
the onset of the final campaign in January 2009, the military took
control of the LTTE’s active capital, Kilinochchi. As the LTTE
retreated, they used thousands of trapped civilians as human shields and
reportedly shot at civilians trying to flee. Despite heavy
international pressure, prompting the government to designate safe zones
for civilians, repeated shelling continued to penetrate those zones.
The fighting continued until May 16, 2009 at which time the military
took full control of LTTE-controlled area.

Decisions

Ending
the reign of LTTE terror was the result of a decisive decision taken by
Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and members of his government.
There were several factors leading to the President’s decision. First,
Sri Lanka is a social democracy, thereby allowing it to use means that
liberal-democracies would not. Second, every previous attempt at
negotiating between the government and the LTTE failed. Third, years of
violence severely crippled the Sri Lankan economy and fourth, on-going
terror coupled with the fear that the LTTE would acquire sophisticated
weapons harmed their legitimacy.
It
seems, however, that the most significant factor was the President’s
decision to use the same means as the LTTE. In an interview I conducted
with Donald Perera, the former Sri Lankan Ambassador to Israel, he
stated “when the government finally realized that the terrorists were
ruining the country and that every time someone left home they did not
know if they would return, the President decided to wipe them out.”

Terrorism

Despite
using the word “terrorism”, there is not one universally agreed upon
definition. However, a majority of definitions of “terrorism” contain
several similarities: aspects of violence and power, political aspects, a
component of fear and psychological influences and a civilian aspect.
Dr. Boaz Ganor has suggested defining terrorism as “the intentional use
or threat to use violence against civilians or against civilian targets,
in order to attain political aims”.
As
seen in the case of Sri Lanka, the lack of a universal definition of
terrorism diminishes the ability to define uniform standards for
assigning responsibilities to both state and terror group actors, for
more effectively countering terrorism and in defining the legal
boundaries in such situations, etc.

Terrorism as a Response to Terrorism

The
LTTE posed a challenge to the authority of the government and an actual
threat to the military. Besides the LTTE’s political arm, their military
arm included sea, air cyber and land units as well as units of children
and women. According to the Los Angeles Times, the LTTE carried out
more suicide bombings than Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Qaeda combined.
Compared
to the LTTE’s tactics, some of the government’s means in response
included: preventing media coverage, ignoring the United Nations and
human rights groups as well as isolating and perpetrating fear upon the
Tamil population. Between 1983 and 2009, thousands of civilians died and
hundreds of thousands were displaced.

Legitimacy

Why were the LTTE perceived as the “bad
guys” whereas the government the “good guys” when both sides used
violence against citizens for political aims – meaning terrorism? The
answer might lie in the limited notion that sees the existence of
terrorism as relying on only two variables – motivation and capability.
This presumes that in order to effectively fight terrorism only these
two variables need to be addressed.
However,
as the LTTE possessed both motivation and capability, they lacked a
third component – legitimacy. Contrary to the LTTE, the government
presented a single and unified approach on all levels and leveraged the
failures of all prior negotiations as a justification to generate an
aggressive campaign of legitimacy both domestically and internationally.
Until 2007, the LTTE was considered as a terrorist organization by 32
countries. Hence, despite the pressure and criticism from the United
Nations and human rights groups, Sri Lanka was not considered a
state-sponsor of terrorism.
In
conclusion, even though the LTTE, after 30 years of bloodshed, did not
achieve their ultimate goal, in order for the Sri Lankan government to
maintain stability, they must recognize the basic demands of the Tamil
population. Further, they must allow the Tamil population to re-enter
political life, and reduce the insecurities felt by the Tamils through
integrating them as citizens with full and equal rights.
Article by Shlomi Yass

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